COURSE CARE
Better Grasses Help Golf Courses Handle the Heat July 31, 2018 By George Waters, USGA Green Section

Summer can be a stressful time for turf, but investing in improved grasses is helping golf courses take the heat. (USGA/Steve Boyle)

Summer is a great season for playing golf, but it can also be an extremely challenging time for turf. High heat and humidity, periods of drought, insects, diseases and heavy golf traffic can leave golf course grass stressed and weak. If things get really tough, some grass may die – leaving behind damage that can impact playability for weeks and even months.

Golf course superintendents use a variety of techniques to help grass survive the pressure of summer, including raising the height of cut and mowing less frequently. Unfortunately, even the best management practices may not be enough to help some turf make it to fall. For this reason, golf courses are investing in improved grasses that are better adapted to handle the dog days of summer.

USGA agronomist Paul Jacobs works with golf courses throughout the Northeast and sees firsthand how some facilities struggle during summer.

“When weaker grasses start failing, it has a big impact on the golf experience and a facility’s bottom line,” said Jacobs. “Improved grasses offer a way to break the cycle of summer turf issues and can help golf courses deliver better playing conditions with fewer inputs. Unfortunately, many golf facilities are reluctant to upgrade their grasses because of the initial cost and disruption that comes with the conversion process.”

However, the savings that can come with using improved grasses may allow a turf conversion project to pay for itself within a few years. Better playing conditions also can increase golfer satisfaction and revenue for years to come.

“Upgrading shouldn’t be viewed as a cost,” said Jacobs, “it should be viewed as an investment.”

Corning Country Club in Corning, N.Y., was built in 1919. Over time, the fairways evolved to contain a wide variety of grasses, some more durable than others. During a stressful summer the fairways often would become thin and some areas could fail entirely. Weakened turf and heavy disease pressure also meant that expensive plant protectants had to be applied on a frequent basis. The high cost of fairway maintenance, combined with the unreliable playing conditions, motivated Corning Country Club to make a change.

After consulting with Jacobs, superintendent John Hoyle selected Luminary bentgrass for the fairways, an improved variety developed with the help of USGA research funding. However, finding a way to make the conversion with minimal disruption to play was going to be a challenge.

“Everyone agreed that upgrading the fairways would be great but closing down the course in the middle of the prime playing season was not going to work, so we had to get creative,” said Hoyle.

New bermudagrass greens at the Stonebridge Course in McKinney, Texas, deliver better summertime playing conditions. (Stonebridge Ranch)

Corning Country Club has been converting the fairways in phases, doing a few each year and using various options for golfers to continue playing the holes while the fairways are closed. During the first phases they played the renovated holes as par 3s. This year they are going to allow renovated holes to be played from their normal tee, but golfers must remove balls from the closed fairways and play from the intermediate rough until the new grass is ready.

“The turnaround time is pretty quick,” said Hoyle. “We usually have the new fairways open within four to six weeks. The golfers have been really supportive of the process because they can see the difference it’s making.”

The new fairways look and play better than the old ones and Hoyle doesn’t need to apply plant protectants nearly as often. Once all the fairways are converted, the reduction in applications will save thousands of dollars each year. Hoyle is also finding that the new fairways require less water, which conserves that precious resource and reduces the electric bill that comes with running the pump station.

“Based on the savings we’ve already seen, once all the fairways are complete we could be saving more than $15,000 each year,” said Hoyle. “That means upgrading the fairways is going to pay for itself in a matter of a few years and our golfers will be enjoying the benefits of better playing conditions for a long time to come.”

In the southern U.S., most fairways are already planted with grasses that stand up well to summer heat, but putting greens have been a different story. In many areas, creeping bentgrass was perceived to provide a superior playing surface even though it struggled to survive the hot summers. As golf became an increasingly year-round game in Southern states, the limitations of bentgrass greens became more impactful.

As a result, USGA agronomist John Daniels has observed an increasing number of courses in the Central Region trading in their bentgrass for ultradwarf bermudagrass, which thrives in hot summer conditions.

“There is no question that the ultradwarf bermudagrasses provide excellent playability and reliability during the summer months,” said Daniels, “but what is often overlooked is how good these putting surfaces can be during the rest of the year. In places like Texas, where golf is played throughout the year, switching from bentgrass to an ultradwarf bermudagrass can offer significant benefits.”

At the Stonebridge Course at Stonebridge Ranch in McKinney, Texas, the threat of serious turf loss on the bentgrass putting greens hung over the course every summer. To avoid any issues, superintendent Delmar Israel had to take a defensive approach to maintenance, which left the putting greens softer and slower than desired during the busiest time of the year.

Yet when golfers were initially surveyed about making a conversion to bermudagrass putting greens, their response was overwhelmingly against the idea. “We always had bentgrass and people thought bermudagrass was going to be an inferior putting surface,” explained Israel. “So I took a group over to visit some nearby courses that had already converted their greens. I took them in August, so they could really see the difference between the ultradwarfs and our bentgrass. Their minds changed almost instantly.

“Our golfers didn’t realize the quality of the newer bermudagrasses; overcoming that perception issue was huge for us.”

The new ultradwarf bermudagrass putting greens at Stonebridge have made an immediate impact. During the busy summer playing season, the greens are firmer and faster than would have ever been possible with bentgrass. Rather than struggling to keep putting greens alive during the summer, the staff can focus on maintaining excellent playability.

“We’re providing better playing conditions during some of our busiest times of the year and we’ve eliminated the risk of losing turf to heat stress,” said Israel. “Switching to an ultradwarf bermudagrass made that possible.”

Dr. Kimberly Erusha, managing director of the USGA Green Section, is excited to see golf courses capitalizing on the benefits of improved grasses. “The USGA has invested more than $40 million in turfgrass research at universities across the country. The research process can be slow, and sometimes it’s hard to be patient, but when you see all of the progress coming together and the positive impact on golf course conditioning, it makes it all worth it.”

George Waters is a manager of Green Section education for the USGA. Email him at gwaters@usga.org.